The Syrian army were standing up to Isis long before the Americans ever fired a missile

The survivors of this army, and their families will expect their sacrifice to be respected and, indeed, rewarded

Robert Fisk
Al-Arak, Syria
Thursday 27 July 2017 16:05 BST
Exactly a year before he was killed, General Fouad Khadour sits in his headquarters outside Palmyra
Exactly a year before he was killed, General Fouad Khadour sits in his headquarters outside Palmyra (Nelofer Pazira)

I don’t like armies. They are dangerous institutions. Soldiers are not heroes just because they fight. And I’ve grown tired of saying that those who live by the sword sometimes die by the sword. But in an age when the Americans and the Iraqis and Isis can account for 40,000 civilian deaths in Mosul in the past twelve months, compared to 50,000 civilians slaughtered by the Mongols in 13th-century Aleppo – a human rights improvement of US aircrews, Iraqi brutality and Isis sadism over the Mongol hordes by a mere 10,000 souls – death sometimes seems to have lost its meaning.

Unless you know the victims or their families. I have a friend whose mother was murdered in the Damascus suburb of Harasta near the start of the Syrian war, another whose brother-in-law was kidnapped east of the city and never seen again. I met a little girl whose mother and small brother were shot down by al-Nusrah killers in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, and a Lebanese who believes his nephew was hanged in a Syrian jail. And then, this month, in the eastern Syrian desert, near the dust-swept shack village of al-Arak, a Syrian soldier I’d come to know was killed by Isis.

He was, of course, a soldier in the army of the Syrian regime. He was a general in an army constantly accused of war crimes by the same nation – the United States – whose air strikes contributed so generously to the obscene massacre in Mosul. But General Fouad Khadour was a professional soldier and he was defending the oil fields of eastern Syria – the crown jewels of Syria’s economy, which was why Isis tried to occupy them all and why they killed Khadour – and the war in the desert is not a dirty war like so many of the conflicts perpetrated in Syria. When I met him west of Palmyra, Isis had just conquered the ancient Roman city and publicly chopped or blown off the heads of the civilians and soldiers and civil servants who did not manage to flee.

Just a year before, the general’s son, also a soldier, had been shot dead in battle in Homs. Fouad Khadour merely nodded when I mentioned this. He wanted to talk about the war in the hot, brown mountains south of Palmyra, where he was teaching his soldiers to fight back against the Isis suicide attackers, to defend their isolated positions around the oil pumping and electricity transmission station where he was based, and to save the T4 pipelines on the road to Homs. The Americans, who proclaimed Isis to be an “apocalyptic” force, sneered that the Syrian army did not fight Isis. But Khadour and his men were standing up to Isis before the Americans ever fired a missile, and learning the only lesson that soldiers can understand when confronted by a horrific enemy: not to be afraid.

Khadour admitted his losses but recounted with quiet horror how, in an attack on a cave complex in the mountains, his soldiers found that Isis had left women’s clothes behind them when they retreated. I don’t understand, I said. “Nor did I,” the general replied. “Then we realised they probably belonged to the Yazidi women sex slaves whom Daesh [Isis] had abducted in Iraq.”

Then the Syrians, supported by massive Russian air attacks on Isis, poured back into Palmyra and recaptured the city and I met General Khadour again in the concrete hut which he had turned into his headquarters between a 13th-century Mamluke castle and a mountain chain. He had led his soldiers into Palmyra under constant mortar attack. Many of them had died stepping on the mines which Isis had so artfully laid beneath apparently well-trodden dirt roads. Khadour was himself wounded by mine splinters although he made more fuss about the fierce scorpion bites which he now endured each night in his concrete hut.

He was also outraged at the media. “We had a television crew come to Palmyra after the battle,” he said, “and the journalist asked us to restage the fighting – so that the reporter could pretend to have been present at the time!” And he shook his head mournfully. They were not a Western television crew, he added. He said the war would go on, that there was far more fighting to be done in the desert. We took a photograph of him sitting in his fatigues in the desert heat beside a torn camouflage screen. He looked amused, tired perhaps, a man who had learnt a lot about the desert. He had almost exactly a year to live.

Syrian couple married for 65 years still have each other despite losing everything in country’s war

Isis returned to Palmyra and were driven out once more and then, months later, the great battle began to push Isis towards the Euphrates. I wanted to talk to Khadour again. He was now fighting east of Palmyra in the hills around al-Arak. A friend called him at his home above Lattakia – yes, he was an Alawite although most of his men were Sunni Muslims – where he was briefly on leave, to say I wanted to see him. He now had just two days to live.

Fouad Khadour’s superior officer bore the same family name – he was General Mohamed Khadour, who is commander of the entire eastern military region – though they were not related. He took me out to the hills where Khadour was killed. These are his words: “I and my colleague were talking to Fouad on the phone where he was under attack near the Ramamin [oil] field and we went off to see him to talk about the operation. We saw him on a hill organising his troops at al-Arak. He walked towards the road where we stopped and Isis were firing mortars at us which landed near us. They knew who they were shooting at. We gave our plans to Fouad. I said we should temporarily evacuate this area. When we got back to our vehicle, Fouad came to say goodbye. But just after we drove away, a tank shell exploded beside him. We heard that he was hit in the hand. I tried to call him on his phone and he tried to talk but could not speak. He was on the line because I could see his name on the phone screen. They got him to hospital and he kept saying “it’s just my hand” and he was quite clear-headed. But then they discovered a piece of shrapnel had entered his body and punctured his lung. And then he declined and his breathing started to falter and after an hour he was dead. He was a hero and a very brave man.”

The regime’s enemies would deny this – as they curse all of Assad’s army – but it is a fact that General Fouad Khadour died fighting the same murderous cult that Russia, America and France and countless Western countries have named as their greatest enemy. That so many of Isis’s weapons turn out to have originated in the West – both the living General Khadour and the dead General Khadour spoke of this to me – provides a cruel irony to this story. The tank which fired at Fouad Khadour might have been Syrian armour captured early in the war – or an American Abrams seized by Isis in Mosul in 2014 and driven into Syria as many other US tanks were.

But Fouad Khadour’s death represented something else. For here died yet another senior officer in an army which may now have lost around 74,000 soldiers. Many of the dead are indeed officers, too, because field commanders in Syria are expected to live in the front lines. Another senior officer was killed during a failed ceasefire in Aleppo two weeks ago. I found one Syrian colonel in Aleppo this month who – after much reflection – said that he could think of 200 people he knew personally who had been killed in the war, most of them soldiers, one of them his uncle. The survivors of this army, and their families – if they “win” this war, and if such a simple victory is possible when so many foreign powers are involved – will expect their sacrifice to be respected and, indeed, rewarded.

Thus the importance of the Syrian army grows each day. It is no longer the corrupted – and corrupting – force which rotted away in Lebanon for 29 years, nor the untrained force which first confronted insurrection amid the defection of its own soldiers. It is now the most battle-hardened Arab army in the Middle East, more so than the Iraqis, who have far fewer professional soldiers.

And it is the Syrian army which will have to rebuild Syria. General Fouad Khadour – and his death – are thus part of the future as well as the past of Syria.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in